Don Braden – Earth Wind And Wonder, New Interpretations of Songs by Earth Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder; Jazz Doesn’t Get Any More Joyous Than This
For a musician of Don Braden’s accomplishment, there wouldn’t seem to be a project more potentially enjoyable, thrilling, and fulfilling as creating new jazz interpretations of Earth Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder songs. According to Braden,
Earth Wind and Fire and Stevie Wonder captured my teenage heart, mind and soul and have not let go. The messages within their music – built around core themes such as strength, love and joy — are imbued with African-American spirit, and yet embody a wide variety of human emotions and experience. They are delivered with power, artistry and elegance via memorable and singable melodies, rich harmonies, compelling lyrics, infectious grooves, outstanding arrangements and superb performances. Happily, the commercial success of these great artists reflects their brilliance.
Don Braden is a native of Louisville, KY where he picked up the saxophone at a very young age and began playing professionally by age fifteen. Now 54, Braden is the midst of a storied career in which his credits look like a who’s who of jazz.
We’ll discuss Earth Wind And Wonder below, but first read an account of some key turning points in Braden’s life such as leaving Harvard when he was in his junior year to pursue a music career in NYC. Wynton Marsalis was instrumental in this. There’s much more in a fascinating interview Braden gave Jeff Tamarkin in Jazz Times (July 19, 2017).
Don Braden has just released Earth Wind And Wonder on which he pays tribute to the music of Earth Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder. On this project, Braden creates new jazz interpretations of songs that he, and probably you, hold in high regard. I do as well. Earth Wind And Wonder is Braden’s fourth album for the Creative Perspective Music label and his 20th album overall as a leader.
This album is generally brilliant and was arranged and produced by Braden, which brings me to the first amazing feat, the track selection. Earth Wind And Wonder contains ten tracks, two of them are new originals composed by Braden, more on them in a minute. For the eight remaining tracks, Braden chose four by Stevie Wonder and four by Earth, Wind & Fire. Both of these artists have catalogues stuffed to the gills with superlative songs. How do you decide what to include and what to leave out? See the tracklist above.
I listened to this album several times and found that the way Braden interprets this material is his second act of brilliance. These tracks are not merely vehicles for a saxophone version of the tune, although that does play a part as does Braden’s flute. Another thing these tracks are not is a jumping off point for soloing, although that does play a part also, especially in “Can’t Hide Love”. These tracks are mostly complex compositions by Braden, which retain the DNA of the original song. This is breathtaking, especially if you are familiar with the material. Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Fantasy” is a perfect example and as the album’s opener, it sets the bar high.
The third track “Visions” offers a delightful combination of piano and Braden’s flute. EW&F’s “Getaway” challenges the listener with a tenor sax lead that plays both the overt melody and also the staccato rhythm of the original song. Track five, “I Can’t Help It”, is something of a Wonder rarity. Wonder wrote it and gave it Michael Jackson for his Off the Wall album (1979). It only exists by Wonder in demo form, although he has played it live a few times. It is, to begin with, a very jazzy track that lends itself well to jazz interpretation albums by other artists. Braden’s version is a gorgeous piece of piano and flute excursions.
This nicely sets up track six through nine, which I like to think of as the centerpiece of the record. Take one each of EW&F’s and Wonder’s most well known compositions and surround them with Braden’s two originals. Starting with “The Elements”, which has the perfect set up from the previous track. Braden says that,
The two originals were inspired by this album’s concept. I composed “The Elements” based on the classic four elements: earth, air, fire and water. The song opens with four 4-bar variants of the main motif, each with a different melodic and harmonic character (corresponding to its element), followed by the main jazz chorus. The song alternates between these two sections.
Even though the originals are totally worthy of inclusion in this tribute, it had to give an artist (such as Braden) a bit of pause when deciding to do so. It’s not like this gutsy move is without precedent; Shelby Lynne’s tribute to Dusty Springfield comes to mind, on which she sang songs by the cream of American songwriters. Lynne, addressing the idea of including one of her own compositions on the album, explained the premise by saying that she imagined her song being pitched to Dusty and hoping that she’d sing it. The mechanics of that scenario are not the relevant takeaway, but that story represents the issues involved in making such a decision. Happily, the Lynne penned tune was completely worthy of inclusion, and I would say the same about Braden’s two originals.
“After the Love Has Gone” (EW&F) and “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” (Wonder) have melodies that also are so universal that they seem hard wired into our consciousness. Braden’s versions are a little more relaxed than the originals, and his sax has such a warm tone that together with the solid backing of piano, bass, and drums these performances drive the pleasure level off the charts. These tracks are followed, perfectly I might add, by Braden’s other original composition, “The Wonder of You”. Braden’s liner notes tell us that, “’The Wonder of You’, like so many Stevie songs, mixes a lyrical melody, jazz harmony and a groove – in this case, a mellow bossa-funk.”
Finally, Braden brings it home with his take on Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”. This is a more complex jazz piece, yet it never strays too far from the roots of the song, a kind of counterpart to track one, “Fantasy”.
One of the nicest aspects of Earth Wind And Wonder is that jazz expertise is not required for enjoyment. Naturally, the more you know about jazz, the more you will get from this fine recording, but it takes all comers.
“I hope this music energizes and inspires you to hear with “new ears”. I encourage you to dig deeper into the remarkable music of Earth Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder. I recommend that you also check out Philip Bailey’s book, “Shining Star: Braving the Elements of Earth, Wind & Fire”; it’s awesome. We’ll see you at the next gig!”
Looking at his discography, I can’t believe that this is my first encounter with Don Braden’s music. I am going to seriously enjoy going back and listening to his previous recordings. I can’t give this album any better recommendation.
Note: After becoming familiar with Earth Wind And Wonder, I assembled a playlist that interlaces the originals with Braden’s interpretations. It is an interesting way of listening to the record: Spotify link